In Close Up: Laurence Olivier

An 80th Birthday Tribute

22 May – 29 November 1987

Display curated and captioned by Honor Clerk

Original press release

Laurence Olivier celebrates his 80th birthday on May 22. The National Portrait Gallery pays tribute to him in a small ‘In Close-Up’ display recording his outstanding career in the theatre and films. It includes the portrait by Salvador Dali of Olivier as the man and actor in Richard III (1955), last seen in the 1980 Dali exhibition at the Tate Gallery. Also on show is a new 80th birthday photograph of Olivier as well as an earlier family group by Alistair Morrison, a portrait by Emma Sergeant, press and studio photographs by Howard Coster, Cecil Beaton and others, film stills and video.

Lord Olivier is one of Britain’s greatest actors and his career has had a profound influence on the theatre and cinema during the last sixty years. His first appearance, aged fifteen, was at Stratford-on-Avon as Kate in a special boys’ performance of The Taming of the Shrew, but the turning point in his career came in his dual portrayal of Romeo and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (1935). His reputation as a classic Shakespearean actor was achieved with legendary performances such as Hamlet, Richard III, Macbeth, Coriolanus and Othello. He also played leading roles in a wide variety of film productions in Britain and Hollywood, including Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939) and Archie Rice in The Entertainer (1957). Throughout his career Lord Olivier has established himself as both actor and director, his productions including a trilogy of Shakespeare films which have since become screen classics: Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955). In recent years he has appeared in various television roles: as Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited (1981) and as King Lear (1983).

Lord Olivier was the driving force behind the establishment of the National Theatre and was appointed its first director in 1963. He has collected numerous awards for his work in both theatre and films. In 1947 he was knighted and in 1970 was created a life peer. He became a member of the Order of Merit in 1981.


Laurence Olivier as Michael Geste in Beau Geste, 1929

Basil Dean’s spectacular production gave Olivier a number of West End starring roles which launched him on his career.

Modern bromide print

By Sasha


Laurence Olivier as Michael Geste in Beau Geste, 1929
Basil Dean’s spectacular production gave Olivier a number of West End starring roles which launched him on his career.
Modern bromide print
By Sasha

Laurence Olivier as Victor Prynne in Private Lives, 1930
This successful production with Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward transferred to New York, from where Olivier moved on to Hollywood.
Modern print from negative in BBC Hulton Picture Library
By Sasha

Studio portrait of Laurence Olivier
The young romantic lead in the Ronald Colman mould.
By Dorothy Wilding, circa 1930
Given by the Kobal Collection

The Green Bay Tree, 1933
In this highly acclaimed New York production Olivier co-starred with his wife, Jill Esmond.
By Vandamm Studio, New York Public Library

Olivier, Jill Esmond, and baby Tarquin, 1936
Modern bromide print from original neg.
By Dorothy Wilding
Kobal Collection

Romeo and Juliet, 1935
Olivier’s first major Shakespearean role was in Gielgud’s famous production at the New Theatre. Here seen as Romeo.
By Howard Coster

As Mercutio, 1935
Half-way through the run, Olivier and Gielgud swapped roles, Olivier playing Mercutio to Gielgud’s Romeo.
By Howard Coster, 1936

As You Like It, 1936
In Paul Czinner’s film as Orlando to Elisabeth Bergner’s Rosalind.
Vintage film still
Kobal Collection

With Vivien Leigh, 1937
Snapped departing for Elsinore with the Old Vic Company’s Hamlet. Olivier divorced Jill Esmond and married Vivien Leigh in 1940.
London News Agency

Wuthering Heights, 1939
Olivier’s most famous early film role, co-starring with Merle Oberon. William Wyler’s direction helped to refine Olivier’s attitude to film acting.
Vintage film still
Kobal Collection

Twenty-One Days, 1937
Previously seen together in Fire Over England, Olivier and Leigh were embarrassed when this poor film was eventually released in 1939.
Vintage film still
Kobal Collection

Rebecca (1940)
Another great romantic performance, this time with Joan Fontaine under Alfred Hitchcock, brought Olivier further fine reviews and made the film a classic.
Modern bromide print from original neg.
Given by the Kobal Collection

Romeo and Juliet, 1940
Olivier and Leigh, now married, put all of their savings into this New York production which was a flop.
Colour stage photograph
Kobal Collection

Pride and Prejudice, 1940
Olivier’s third consecutive film success; here seen with Greer Garson, his performance as Mr Darcy was singled out as the only good thing in this Hollywood adaptation.
Colour film still
Kobal Collection

Lady Hamilton, 1941
Made by Alexander Korda in Hollywood at Winston Churchill’s suggestion; Olivier starred as Nelson with Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton.
Vintage film still, 1940
Kobal Collection

Henry V, 1944
Publicity photograph for the first of the great Shakespearean film trilogy; based on the National Portrait Gallery’s portrait of Henry.
Geoffrey Wheeler Collection

Arms and the Man, 1944
Olivier co-directed the Old Vic Company with Ralph Richardson and John Burrell; here seen as Saranoff with Joyce Redman as Louka.
Vintage stage photo
By Felix Man

Oedipus Rex, 1945
The variety of roles played by Olivier with the Old Vic was typified by the double-billing of Oedipus and The Critic in which he played Mr Puff.

Hamlet, 1948
As with Henry V, Olivier produced, directed and starred in Hamlet and won Oscars for Best Picture and best Actor.
Vintage film still
National Film Archive

Caesar and Cleopatra, 1951
After being sacked from the Old Vic with his co-directors while on tour, Olivier went into management and presented both the Shaw and Shakespeare Cleopatra plays with Vivien Leigh.
Vintage stage portrait, 1951
By Angus McBean

Salvador Dali painting Olivier as Richard III, 1955
The portrait was used for publicity for what was perhaps the most successful of the Shakespeare films.
Vintage publicity photo
National Film Archive

The Prince and the Showgirl, 1957
Olivier had directed Vivien Leigh in the stage version of Terence Rattigan’s play but memorably teamed up with Marilyn Monroe for the film.
Vintage film still
National Film Archive

The Entertainer, 1960
Olivier’s virtuoso film performance as Archie Rice, the seedy song-and-dance man was originally conceived for the production at the Royal Court in 1957.
Bromide print, film still
Kobal Collection

The Entertainer, 1960
Olivier met Joan Plowright during the stage production in which she played his daughter. Both repeated the roles for the film. They married in 1961.
Bromide print, film still
By Bert Cann

Uncle Vanya, 1962
Olivier was appointed Director of the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1961 and re-created for this production the role of Astrov which he had first played in 1945.
By Angus McBean

Othello, 1964
The National Theatre Company was formally created in 1963 and its literary adviser Kenneth Tynan prevailed on Olivier to tackle this last untried Shakespearean role. It proved to be one of his greatest triumphs.
By Angus McBean

In Bernard Hailstone’s studio, 1965
Olivier posing in the artist’s studio after completion of two of the dour portraits which were painted as a result of a commission from the Garrick Club.
By Bernard Hailstone

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, 1976
Olivier’s Moriarty was a vividly-characterized pedagogue in this Sherlock Holmes adaptation, and won him special praise.
Bromide print, film still
Kobal Collection

Brideshead Revisited, 1981
Olivier retired from the stage in 1973. The role of Lord Marchmain in this classic TV series was one of a number of rewarding cameos on the screen.
Bromide print, film still
Kobal collection

King Lear, 1983
Granada television’s presentation of Lear provided Olivier with his last great Shakespearean role and contained echoes of his 1946 Old Vic performance. He had produced a memorable series of plays for Granada 1976-8.
By Snowdon

Olivier as Richard III, 1985
The Royal Doulton ceramic figure modelled by Eric Griffiths was based on photographs of the stage production by the Old Vic Company in 1944.
Lent by Judith Pendergast

Souvenir programmes and promotional material for Richard III
Geoffrey Wheeler Collection

Cartoon by Ronald Searle, Punch, 23 January 1957
The most famous theatrical couple of their time in one of a series of Searle portraits for Punch.
Geoffrey Wheeler Collection

Portrait of Laurence Olivier, 1940
A studio portrait taken in Hollywood for publicity purposes at the time of Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice.
Bromide print
By Laszlo Willinger

Portrait of Laurence Olivier, 1947
Taken at the British Embassy in Paris on a visit to the Duff Coopers. Olivier was appearing with the Old Vic at the Comédie-Française.
Bromide print on white card mount
By Sir Cecil Beaton

Portrait of Laurence Olivier, 1954
Taken while Olivier was working on the film of Richard III.
Bromide print
By Yousuf Karsh

Portrait of Laurence Olivier, 1962
A studio portrait; Angus McBean photographed many of Olivier’s theatre productions of this time.
Semi-matte bromide print
By Angus McBean

Portrait of Laurence Olivier, 1978
Taken in the Olivier auditorium of the National Theatre for the Sunday Times/National Portrait Gallery series ‘The Great British’. Olivier had been obliged to retire as Director of the National Theatre in 1973 before completion of the new building.
Bromide print
By Arnold Newman

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet
During production of the film Olivier received a knighthood and was awarded an Oscar for his predecessor, Henry V, on the set of the film.
By Harry Gillard, 1948
National Film Archive

Lord Olivier’s 80th birthday, 1987
Bromide print
By Alistair Morrison

Lord Olivier’s 80th birthday, 1987
C-type colour print
By Alistair Morrison

Painting and Sculpture

Laurence Olivier as Richard III, 1955
Painted and used in connection with the film Richard III. Dali accepted commissions for a number of semi-surrealist portraits during the 1940s and 1950s.
By Salvador Dali
Lent by Mr and Mrs William Govett

Laurence Olivier as Romeo, 1936
In costume for his first major Shakespearean role at the New Theatre in 1935.
By Harold Knight
Lent by Lord Olivier

Sir Laurence Olivier, 1965
Painted at the time of Olivier’s triumphant Othello which toured Moscow and Berlin. One of four versions of a portrait commissioned for the Garrick Club.
By Bernard Hailstone
Lent by the Artist

Sir Laurence Olivier, 1951
Modelled at Olivier’s country mansion, Notley Abbey, at the time of the Cleopatra plays. The sculptor was working on a bust of Vivien Leigh which was never completed.
Bronze bust by Peter Lambda

Lord Olivier, 1982
Commissioned by the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery as part of the 1st prize for the Imperial Tobacco Portrait Award 1981. Painted at the time of Brideshead Revisited and A Voyage Round My Father.
Oil on panel
By Emma Sergeant

Film poster for Henry V, 1944/45
National Film Archive

Film poster for The Dance of Death, 1969
Strindberg’s The Dance of Death was one of several filmed versions of National Theatre productions at this time.
National Film Archive

The Olivier family, 1985
Lord Olivier and Joan Plowright (Lady Olivier) with their three children, (from left to right) Julie Kate, Richard and Tamsin. Taken for You Magazine.
C-type colour print
By Alistair Morrison